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April 04, 2006 (Review of "Nakamatsu Plays Grieg")

Nakamatsu, symphony reveal concerto's beauty

By Richard Scheinin, Mercury News
Edvard Grieg's Piano Concerto in A minor is one of those stubborn warhorses that mysteriously still crowds its way into the secret corridors of popular consciousness, even in the age of ``American Idol'' and 50 Cent. Even people who never, ever listen to classical music will recognize its opening chords -- they've come to define a sort of quaint grandiosity -- from late-night television infomercials: ``Now! The all-time great 100 classical tunes!''

Oh, man. Do we really have to hear that again? Yes, we do, it turns out. In the right hands, Grieg's concerto -- written when the Norwegian was all of 25, and revised up until the final weeks before his death at age 64 in 1907 -- is still a thrilling thing.

Saturday night at the California Theatre, from that first descending sequence of granite chords, pianist Jon Nakamatsu overcame the corn and unmasked the beauty that endeared Grieg to legions in his time. Nakamatsu and Symphony Silicon Valley, led by British guest conductor William Boughton, made the piece endearing once again.

And why not? Its themes are still fresh and charmingly detailed. The piece moves: Its rhythms are high-spirited, its harmonies piquant.

And Nakamatsu (the San Jose native played to sold-out houses Saturday and Sunday) offered a performance that was letter-press crisp, but also nimbly playful and rippling. And dramatic: The Liszt-like cadenza of the opening movement moved along like velvet waters; the final movement's high-intensity conclusion was underscored by the pianist's hand-over-hand featherbed chords, racing up the keyboard with the greatest of ease. It was a pleasure to watch, as well as to listen.

The orchestra was right there with him, shadowing his themes, steadily adjusting volume and mood, responding to Boughton's clear, lean gestures. There were excellent cameos from flutes, oboes and bassoon as well as the orchestra's new principal horn, Meredith Brown. The strings achieved a rich, toasty sound; the cellos did the same, independently. It was an impressive performance.

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